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Duck Duck Syrah

Today's dinner is brought to you by a convergence of circumstances, and also a shade of melancholy.

Despite my endless love affair with Central Market, I try to avoid it on Saturdays and Sundays, because it is eye-poppingly crowded. Don't pick the big cart. In crowds, I have a tendency to get overstimulated and anxious, which can make me feel very isolated, so I avoid them whenever I can. But today, I braved the crowds, mostly because I had run out of milk, which is an emergency-level problem in my home. I'm glad I did, because not only did I get to partake of the dizzying array of samples they have on weekends, and refill my supply of milk, I also learned something important about my ability to buy one of my favorite proteins: duck!

So, just briefly to explain the melancholy... it kinda sucks shopping and cooking for just yourself. It embarrasses me to tell the folks at the meat and seafood counters that I only want a one-person-sized amount, especially when there are rarely cuts that meet that description, and I feel uncomfortable asking them to cut something into smaller portions. It's silly, I know, but the combination of insecurity about my loneliness and obsession with never wanting to be a burden or inconvenience makes shopping for proteins a tough thing from time to time. And around this time of year, which was *ahem* very different for me one year ago, I've been feeling lonelier than I have in a while, especially while shopping for food.

Nevertheless, he persisted! I have been thinking about cooking duck for a while, but have never had the balls to ask the CM butchers if I could buy just one breast––they get their duck fresh from external companies that package the breasts in packs of four. When I went to peruse the selection, I noticed there was an open package that had one breast removed, and so I feebly asked, and the butcher confirmed they can open the packages for us and I could buy just one. And here I thought I had to buy all four!

A 6 oz. duck breast, like those they have at CM, is PERFECT for one person. And look, they have blueberries on special! Blueberries (like most berries!) are an awesome base for a sauce for duck. Oh, and look! The wine section! Time to try a cool climate syrah, which is incidentally wonderful with duck, and berries!

The elements were converging, and I began to scheme about my forthcoming dinner. Many of you know that my "recipes" are often experiments and rather haphazard, and tonight wasn't really an exception, and little threads from my subconscious fleshed themselves out into the dinner I would enjoy tonight.

The first step, as always, since you always want to cook while drinking, is to pour yourself some of the wine you'll be drinking with your food! Now, many of you know that while I appreciate and enjoy almost all varietals and regions, I am a hoe for Burgundian-style wines, like pinot noir and chardonnay, from cooler climates and vintages. However, I have these "love affair" periods with different wines/regions, and my red wine obsession right now is syrah, specifically syrah from cool climates.

Why cool climates? Cool climate wines, which usually just means that the grapes are cooled off at night (also known as "diurnal shifts") so they ripen more slowly, are higher in acidity, lighter in body, and can be described as "delicate" or "elegant," and with more "balance" than wines from more consistently warm/hot climates, which have more robust fruit profiles and tend to be heavier in body. While I definitely appreciate a big, ripe Napa cabernet, I find cooler climate wines often have more finesse and nuance, and are more food-friendly and drinkable, and therefore I gravitate toward them.

Syrah is a grape that is often made in warmer climates, and consequently makes wines with bold, darker fruit, more aggressive tannins, and elements like leather, smoke, and pepper. The northern Rhône in southeastern France is arguably the most famous syrah region in the world, and viticulturalists believe the grape was originally from a region just about 30 miles to the southeast of the Rhône. These syrahs differ by appellation, obviously, and even within a given appellation, but the most prized tend to be bolder, but focused, in style, with heft and spice. New World winemakers, like those in the US, tend to follow the "warm climate" model for syrah, so I had always associated syrah with big, dark fruit-driven wines with healthy tannins and a backbone of things like pepper, leather, chocolate, or smoke.

Imagine my surprise when I spent some time tasting cool climate syrah this January in California! It started innocently enough, with the som at Angler in San Francisco suggesting a cool climate syrah from Melville, one of my favorite producers of pinot noir in the Santa Barbara area. The wine was definitely berry-driven, but so delicate, fresh, and nuanced. It was a syrah for a pinot lover––go figure! To my luck, I was to taste at Donelan in Santa Rosa just a few days later, a Sonoma winery that makes magnificent pinot noir, but also specializes in syrahs, and has several really stunning syrahs from cooler microclimates in Sonoma. Well, I had to continue my exploration of this new find!

Once duck was on the menu and blueberries all but guaranteed for the sauce, I headed straight for the syrah section, which was surprisingly limited for Central Market! There were a handful of cool climate expressions in their selection, and I settled on a Sonoma Coast syrah from Wind Gap, since the wines I sampled in California most recently were also sourced from the Sonoma Coast AVA. This one is a 2014, sourced from the cooler, maritime-influenced vineyards of the Sonoma Coast, which had the blackberry and blueberry-driven character I was expecting, with nice hints of spice and even iron, and some lingering "chewy" tannins that stuck around a little longer than welcome given the generally short finish of the wine. I enjoyed this wine very much (but I will still have dreams about those monumental but currently inacce$$ible Donelan single-vineyard syrahs... *melt*).

I started by making the sauce, and my favorite accompaniment to duck is a sugar and vinegar-based sauce called gastrique. Gastrique is awesome because it's pretty much idiot-proof––even the most clueless of chefs can create an impressive gastrique, and consequently deploy the word "gastrique" with a nice French stank when serving their creation. It's also SO versatile, so you can add pretty much anything you want, from liquors/liqueurs, to savory things like allium, or whatever fresh (or not so fresh) fruit you happen to have. My favorite gastriques are fruit-based, but I decided to add some diced cherry hot pepper to the blueberry. I also added some bourbon during the reducing process to add a bit of heft. The sauce was really tasty, despite my being pretty aggressive with the reducing and winding up with something that more resembled warm jello than a proper sauce.

Leeks were next. I've been seeing "melted leeks" on menus rather frequently of late, and while I love leeks, I have always been confused and annoyed by the description. How can a vegetable melt?! Turns out, leeks "melt" by cooking low and slow so the fibers in the leek disintegrate, much like caramelized onions, and the remaining glorious diced leeks are melt-in-your mouth bites of pure, magnificent allium goodness. I diced and cleaned the white and green-white portions of the leeks, melted some butter and olive oil, added salt, and then added the leeks, and cooked them, covered, on medium-low heat for just about 30 minutes. For a texture contrast, and because leeks always come in bunches of three and I never know what to do with all the superfluous leek, I decided to very thinly julienne one of the stalks and flash fry briefly, seasoning with my buddy "Steak Dust!"

I prepared a makeshift dressing of avocado oil, dijon, shallot, a bit of the gastrique, salt, pepper, and lime juice for a side arugula salad. Atop the salad I included some fresh blueberries and a few crumbles of a wonderful candied jalapeño goat cheese that I sampled (and consequently purchased––advertising at work!) at CM. I figured the jalapeño would help compliment the hot pepper in the gastrique, so it ended up being an excellent addition to the salad.

For the main event, I scored the duck to help the fat render successfully in the pan, salted and peppered it lightly, and put it in a cold cast iron skillet on medium-plus heat. The cold skillet is best for allowing the duck fat to render as completely as possible without browning/burning the skin too quickly. I cooked the duck, flipping from time to time and basting with the rendered duck fat in the pan, until my meat thermometer read 130 degrees, and which point I took the breast from the pan and let it rest under foil.

While the duck was resting, I added a sprig of fresh oregano and some blueberries to the duck fat in the hot pan, allowing them to cook briefly and absorb some of the glorious duck fat left in the bottom of the skillet. I then plated the salad and the leeks, with the "melted" leeks beneath the crispy julienned leeks. Once the duck was ready, I sliced it and poured a healthy amount of the gastrique, garnishing with the blueberries cooked in the duck fat and the sprig of oregano.

The duck was delicious, if perhaps a shade too close to medium, with a crispy skin and a mouthwatering layer of duck fat underneath. The tangy and slightly sweet gastrique was a perfect foil to the gamey and fattier elements of the duck, and the pepper added a lovely vegetal quality and spice to the sauce. To my surprise, my favorite thing on the garnish, and the thing that tied all the flavors together the best, was the oregano! Nice and peppery, with crispy leaves fried in the duck fat. The leeks were to DIE for, and I am so glad I added the fried leeks on top for texture contrast––melted leeks will definitely swiftly become one of my go-tos. The salad was also tasty and refreshing; arugula's nutty, peppery flavor is my favorite of the leafy greens and stood up nicely to the peppery elements of the dish and wine.

I might be alone, and it might embarrass me to shop for just myself (the way I have for all but four months of my nearly 12 adult years), but I take pride in being able to create and enjoy good food for myself, especially food (and wine!) that is a sort of agglomeration of many different threads of my culinary subconscious.

This will be my main course recipe feature for February, so if you like what you see and want to learn how to make it for yourself, your family, or your friends, check out the recipe page here!

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